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A Guide To Teaching Students With Profound Disabilities: What To Expect, What To Teach

By Anne Vize

This concise guide covers what to expect when teaching students with profound disabilities, plus tips for success like setting realistic IEP goals, working as a team, sharing the load and using multi-teacher classes and a community education focus.There's also a bonus music lesson idea!

What to Expect

Upon reflecting on my own early teaching experiences, I came to the realization that there is no one 'expectation' for first teaching students who have profound intellectual disabilities. For every teacher's experience is their own, and it will be a blending of their own initial teacher training, the support of their guides and mentors, and the nature of the particular needs of their student group which will determine their own teaching journey. My own 'first classroom' involved teaching a group of young people with profound levels of disability, all of whom were unique and different in terms of their skills, abilities, physical and cognitive support needs and personalities.

As a guide, when first teaching students with profound intellectual disabilities, you may be able to expect:

  • a cognitive level which is significantly below that expected for similar-aged peers
  • some students who may not be able to communicate intentionally
  • some students who vocalize or communicate (intentionally or unintentionally) through gesture or sound
  • some students who have dual or multiple disabilities
  • a need for a curriculum which is student focused and individualized

Tips for Successful Teaching

As with any teaching experience, there are some gems of advice that will help you make it successfully through those first few weeks and months in the classroom. So here are some tips to get you underway:

  • where possible, utilize a mentor or more experienced teacher as a support to answer questions and make suggestions
  • see parents and caregivers as the 'best expert available' on their own child
  • be willing to work as part of a multidisciplinary team involving teachers, therapists and parents / caregivers
  • use activities with a general theme such as music, music to movement, cooking or community education as a platform to meet individual goals and allow you to structure your curriculum
  • take your classes out of the classroom when you are confident enough to manage your students in an 'away from school' environment - the benefits of shopping, eating in a food court or visiting a local park or play ground are significant, but do require some careful planning
  • consider the communication needs of your students in your daily planning, and work in multiple opportunities to communicate through the use of technology such as switches and voice output devices, as well as simple gestures and eye pointing
  • consider the health care needs of your students, and take care not to put them at risk through an ill thought out activity or task - consult with nursing staff if available or with therapists, more experienced teachers or parents / caregivers if you are in any doubt

Bonus Music Lesson Concept

Compile a short list of popular songs with a simple melody and beat that are easy and pleasant to listen to. Ensure they are age appropriate for your students, but remember that the notion of age appropriateness comes with its own parcel of challenges, as many students with profound disabilities will tend to show preference for music generally considered appropriate for a much younger age group. I'll leave you to explore the values and ethics of that one on your own!

Back to our activity:

  • Use a Compic or graphic symbol to represent each song.
  • Encourage students to make a choice by placing two of the song symbols on a flat board and allowing sufficient time for them to choose.
  • Play the song for a short while and then stop.
  • Encourage the same student to indicate with gesture, sign or voice if they want the song to continue ('more') or to stop ('finished').
  • Repeat the activity with each student.
  • Encourage participation through adaptive technology such as a banana keyboard.

Music sessions such as the one above, as well as art, community education and movement activities such as swimming, can be ideal ways to begin teaching students with profound intellectual disabilities.